As some of you may know, I've been working on a novel, set partly in the fictitious town of Visco.
I wrote a short story set in Visco and submitted it to the 'Green Stories' competition. I was very pleased when it was short-listed; and even more pleased to have the opportunity to give a reading at the prize ceremony.
You can see me reading an extract on YouTube here; and you can read the story, below.
As soon as I saw him I knew something was odd. He was one of those, not just an outsider – we have plenty of those, obviously – but wrong, you know, dressed in a suit, haircut like he had it trimmed every week, briefcase. A briefcase! I ask you.
Anyway, I was working in the café – the blue one, just off Tulip - I love the café shift, it’s my favourite I think, I just love talking to people and finding out what’s going on and getting the feel of how the day is. Not that I mind the other shifts, obviously – it wouldn’t work if people minded, I get that – but, well, we all have favourites, don’t we? I know Maureen really likes it in the kitchens, she just loves getting all the food ready and thinking about all those people who are going to be well fed, I think she worked in a school kitchen once, but this is much better she says, all the ingredients are fresh and she gets to actually make stuff rather than heat up the packets, you know. Maureen’s really sweet, she got here only a little while after me so I guess we were both a bit scared together and learned how it all works at the same time, she came here with her husband, he’s got early onset dementia, you know, and coming here changed her life, it really did.
Well, it changes all our lives, doesn’t it?
Anyway, I was working in the café just off Tulip, like I said, and it was a completely normal morning to be honest, medium busy, a few mums and a few students and a few people on their laptops, and then this man in the suit walks in and looks the place over and takes a seat by the window over where we keep the big pot plant. It wasn’t like in the movies, you know those westerns or gangster films where everyone goes quiet, but it was a bit strange, just for a moment, a few people looked up and didn’t look back down again, this man in a suit, what was he doing here, you could see the same thought happening on a dozen faces at the same time, and then he headed towards the big pot plant and everyone sort of got back to whatever they were doing, you know, doing their schoolwork or playing on their computer or whatever.
I couldn’t ignore him, of course, I had to serve him.
I gave him a few minutes. He’d looked at the menu almost as soon as he sat down, but he put it down again just as quickly so I knew he needed another look. He had these shoes on, not so surprising given the suit and the briefcase and the haircut, but his shoes – his shoes! It wasn’t just that they were new and shiny. It was like, well, you could just see from a glance that they’d cost an arm and a leg, the kind of shoes that come from one of those top end shops in the old city, one of those places where people with too much money go to buy stuff to try to intimidate the rest of us, you know.
Actually, that’s one of the best things about this place. I hadn’t really thought about it before I got here. Well, not like that I hadn’t. I suppose – before I got here – I’d have been a bit intimidated by those kinds of shoes, and by the kind of man that wears a pair of shoes like that. But at the same time a bit of me secretly admired him, or wanted to know him, or wanted my son James to grow up to be like him. Weird, when you think about. I suppose we all did it, didn’t we? Complain about wealthy people but secretly hope we could be one.
But here at Visco it’s not like that. Not at all. It takes some getting used to – Maureen still has pangs, I think, even after two years – but after a while you just start to think – what was that all about? Why did I spend so much time worrying about all that? All that time, working hard, desperately trying to get a nicer sofa or a better car or whatever… I remember one year – I feel so ashamed thinking about it now – one year I managed to take me and the children on holiday to Crete and I just went on and on about it to my friends, on and on about it, and some of it might have been because I was just plain excited but, to be honest, and looking back on it now, to be honest I was mainly telling everyone I was going to Crete because I knew that it was a better place, a more expensive place, than wherever they were going on holiday that year.
And after a few months in Visco what starts to happen – no one tells you this – what starts to happen is you start to feel sorry for them. You know, sorry for everyone who isn’t here. Sorry for everyone who’s still running around buying things they don’t really need just so that they can impress their friends. Sorry for everyone that thinks they need to own a Ferrari. That’s pretty much how I felt about this man in the suit – sorry for him. There he was, all uptight and in his suit and thinking his shoes mattered, but I could see his knee going up and down like the clappers underneath the table and he was clearly so uncomfortable and was probably wondering what on earth he was doing there and I just felt sorry for him.
I tell you, I was so uncomfortable. It had taken me about three hours to get there and the whole place was just bloody strange. Nothing can prepare you, trust me. You can read all the stuff on the website, all the articles, all the briefing papers, all of it. And then suddenly you’re standing on the bridge and you see the south western edge of the city ahead of you and it just looks… different. No tall buildings. No billboards. No cars.
And it’s really quiet. You can hear the water and the wind and the birds, completely different from the old city.
They put you on a bus once you’ve crossed the bridge. Electric. More like a tram, actually. Not like any tram or bus you’ve seen, mind. There are loads of them, criss-crossing the city, all decorated differently, some with funky paint jobs, some covered in… well, stuff. I saw one while I was in the café that looked like it was made from seashells. Mad. I mean. Why did they do that?
I’d arrived early, even though it had taken me bloody ages to get there. That’s one of the things the briefing papers got right I suppose. And the directions are good, once you get onto the island, not just the physical signposts, the tech, too. The whole place is fully wired, high-speed. I had a good signal everywhere, all the time, so I had no trouble finding the café and I just grabbed a table by the window. The waitress gave me a couple of minutes and I ordered a cappuccino and a pastry. When she brought them over I asked her how much and – get this – she told me there was no charge. My face must’ve asked the question because she said, no, it wasn’t a special offer or a visitor treat or anything: no-one pays. Ever. In Visco, you just walk into a café, and ask for what you want, and it’s given to you.
Given. See? I told you it was weird.
Frankly it just made me even more uncomfortable. I was there to meet with a woman called Dr Farnaby. I’d never met her before, but I’d done the background, obviously, and her profile gave me the creeps. Well, maybe that’s not quite right. I think if I met her under normal circumstances I probably wouldn’t even give her a second thought.
But these weren’t normal circumstances. I mean, my cover story was good – very good – but there was something about Farnaby’s profile that made my hands clammy. She didn’t, not on paper at least, she didn’t look like she should be able to cause me too much trouble – no corporate background, no track record in finance, no history of investment – but the more I read about what she’d been through to get this far, the more I couldn’t make it add up. That court case, back at the beginning - imagine! They took on the entire bloody establishment…
Still, whatever miracles they might have pulled off to get it started, it was obvious from the outside that Visco couldn’t possibly survive for long without some sort of plug-in to the machine. It’s all well and good setting up a radical experiment in sustainable living on an island in the estuary, and it’s terribly impressive, sure, to have attracted so many people to give it a go, and the energy systems are amazing and the food solutions are really clever and all that, but, let’s face it, they can’t build their own electric buses and they can’t manufacture the drugs they need and they can’t make their own robots so, in the end, they’ll still be dependent on the evil capitalist system they think they’re running away from.
Which is where I came in. I’m there to offer them money. Quite a lot of money. The cover story is simple. Investors everywhere have noticed what they’re up to, and ever since Visco won its court case there have people been people all over the world wanting to replicate the model, so there’s obviously lots of demand for this sort of thing, and where there’s demand there’s surely a return. My investors – all of whom have wonderful environmental credentials, and all of whom have very long term perspectives, none of them are in this for a quick buck – my investors want to work with the Visco administration to put the city onto a sustainable footing (in both senses of the word, ha!) and I’m meeting with Dr Farnaby, who sits on the city’s finance committee and is close buddies with the chief honcho, to see if we can do some sort of deal.
That’s the cover story, anyway. I really was representing a consortium of investors, and they really did have billions available to invest. But in reality they weren’t looking to make a success of Visco and roll it out across the world. Quite the reverse. I’d never met anyone from Statement plc, but they’d pulled it all together, the plan being essentially to undermine the thing from the inside. Most of the scenarios they’d run showed that Visco was simply catastrophic for the big corporates. For capitalism. They simply couldn’t allow it to succeed. Everyone happily getting by with much less stuff, repairing things and making their own food and looking after one another for the sheer joy of it? Where’s the profit in that? It just doesn’t bear thinking about.
Except, of course, that it was all I could think about, sitting there in that café, waiting for Dr Farnaby. I rehearsed my sales pitch and watched the world going by. None of it made any sense. People were clearly people going about their business – young people, old people, people in wheelchairs, people on foot, people of various colours and sizes – but what business were they about? Why did they all look so… so well? Some of the early stuff about Visco reckoned it was like a refugee camp. Now I’ve never been to a refugee camp but I’ve seen plenty of them on-line and on TV and if there’s one thing I’m pretty sure about a refugee camp is that it’s full of people who want to go home.
The people I was looking at didn’t look as if they wanted to go home. They looked as if they were already home.
God it had been such a mad morning I’d had a meeting with the tech team about the latest rota system and a call with the designers about the new eco-brewery and then a meeting with Jo about something or other I can’t even remember now and I’d almost forgotten that I’d agreed to meet this bloke Justin something and as soon as I did remember I had one of those moments where you go both hot and cold at the same time because, well, you know, it was one of those things you’d agreed to partly because you have to and partly because it was going to be good fun and I couldn’t remember where I’d filed the prep so I was almost running from the main office across Paine Square and staring at my screen when I suddenly realised I was heading to the wrong café.
So, yes, I was late.
Still, it probably gave him time to take it all in. They’re all the same. It isn’t always me that does these meetings, of course, but I probably do more than most. They think we don’t know. They get in touch – sometimes it’s an email, sometimes a call, sometimes they think of something funky and creative that they think will throw us off the scent like that time with the guy who wanted to build a vineyard on the south east corner – and they spin some bullshit story about how they want to help or they want to invest or they think they’ve identified a possible weakness or whatever.
In the beginning we were more naïve – no surprise there - and we’d meet them and listen politely and they’d send the follow-up bumph and we’d have a bit of a think and then someone – usually Daniel, to be fair, and if not him Jo – one of them anyway would start to unpick the story and it would slowly dawn on the rest of us and we’d realise that it was just another piece of black ops and whoever had had the meeting would feel a mix of shame and anger and would fire off some furious email to tell them where to put their brilliant solution or investment or rescue plan.
That’s what I usually did, anyway.
We learned quickly, though. Better than that, I think, we didn’t make too many mistakes along the way. Not many of them got through. I don’t think we really understood at the beginning just how much of a threat Visco was. At the beginning we thought – well, I thought – that we were just setting something up that a few people might want to join in with, you know, not exactly a cult but certainly something that only a few weirdoes and refusniks would be interested in. I had no idea that so many people would want to be part of it. That so many people were so pissed off with normal life. And I’d had no idea that so many corporates and politicos and powers-that-be would get so scared so quickly at what was going on.
I still remember how bonkers it was in those first few months, there were literally thousands and thousands of people arriving, it was like a refugee camp, thousands of people who’d had enough of the modern world and who thought that Visco was – was what? The answer? The only available alternative?
Certainly the powers-that-be seemed to think that’s what it was – they tried so hard to stop it! And they’re still trying.
That’s what this guy Justin will be doing. He’ll have some cock and bull story about who he represents, and how sincere they are, and how much money they’ve got and how much they believe in the Visco ‘project’. He’ll have a nice haircut and a nice suit and no doubt the leather on the bottom of his shoes will look like it’s only ever seen carpet. Just like all the others, he’ll have completely failed to grasp our ‘together we’re billionaires’ strategy. He’ll be sitting in front of his coffee and staring out of the window, a quizzical expression on his nervous little face.
I wonder if he’ll have seen the poster yet? That’s what I was thinking once I was re-oriented and heading firmly in the right direction towards the blue café just off Tulip. I wonder if he’s seen the poster?
That was why we still went through all this. The obvious thing to do would have been to just start saying no. Once we’d figured out what they were up to, they were easy to spot. We could just as easily have begun refusing the invitations. But we didn’t do that. And that, again, is down to Jo and Daniel. And maybe me. I don’t know. One day we just seemed to agree: it was better that they came. It was better to let them see it. Most, sure, would leave as cynical as when they’d arrived. But not all of them.
Not all of them. And wasn’t that the point of Visco? To show anyone that there really was a different way of doing all this?
As I got nearer to the café I could see him through the window, and Linda behind him, and as I got nearer still I could see from the angle of his gaze and the Mona Lisa smile on Linda’s face that, yes, he’d seen the poster. The Declaration of Care. Our statement of principles. That simple set of statements, Visco’s DNA, working its way into his mind, mysteriously soothing the same doubts and insecurities that he shared with the thousands upon thousands of us already on the island.
“Hello!” I said. “I’m Dr Farnaby!”
I could see it in his eyes before he even spoke: he’d arrived. He’d found his new home. Now it was simply a question of time.